When the new University of Michigan’s Board of Regents convenes in 2019, it will have seven Democrats and just one Republican, the result of two new Democratic members, Jordan Acker and Paul Brown, replacing two current Republican members, Andrew Richner and Andrea Fischer Newman. This will shift the ideological balance of the board to the furthest left it has been in several decades.
The board has been comprised of eight officials elected statewide since 1852. Members were initially mostly nonpartisan but increasingly identified with one of the major political parties. By the early 20th century, nearly all members of the board had political affiliations. Since this period, such partisan dominance that will be present next year has rarely been seen.
There were several brief periods of Republican dominance, but since the emergence of the modern party system, there have been only two such periods, from 1967 to 1968 and from 1975 to 1984, both marked by 7 to 1 Democratic dominance. However, the board has had an almost uninterrupted Democratic majority since the 1950s.
Despite this consistent ideological presence, the board’s work is largely nonpartisan and focuses on various challenges facing the University rather than ideologically acrimonious issues. According to University Regent Ron Weiser (R), the board’s working style is mostly harmonious and united.
“The board is not ideological in nature; at least that’s what I’ve found up to now,” Weiser said. “I believe everyone there is looking at a focus on the University and what’s best for it and the students at the University, for its long-term future. And I don’t think that partisan politics are at play; at least I have not experienced that in my two years.”
Weiser, who was first elected in 2016, will be the chair of the board and the board’s only Republican. He has established productive individual working relationships with the current members of the board and doesn’t see partisan obstacles in the future.
University President Mark Schlissel, who sits on the board as a non-voting member, echoed these comments in an interview with The Michigan Daily earlier this month.
“Rarely do partisan issues show up in discussions by the board,” Schlissel said. “They’re responsible for supervising me and then general oversight of the University, and there are way more similarities than there are differences between the members of different parties … With two new people (Acker and Brown), that’s a quarter of the group that’s different, so there’s a whole new dynamic. And people come in with their own background and the issues they care about … but I wouldn’t parse those things into Democrat or Republican.”
Though the work on the board is supposedly non-partisan, Public Policy junior Katie Kelly, the communications director of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said she still sees value in the partisan elections. She said party identification signals that candidates hold certain views on governance.
“It shows the real values that that person has,” Kelly said. “With the extreme divides that have come between the Democratic and Republican parties, it has become easier to see what a politician values based on their party. So for us in College Dems — we knew that Jordan Acker and Paul Brown shared the same values as us.”
The College Democrats spent time working with Brown and Acker, who attended several meetings of the organization this semester as well as their “election eve” party. Kelly said the College Democrats considered this midterm to be especially important, and members emphasized the importance of down-ballot elections, such as those for the Board of Regents, in their advocacy. They focused on the Board of Regents more than other down-ballot elections because of how directly the candidates affect the lives and educations of University students.
The University’s chapter of College Republicans similarly campaigned for Richner and Newman. LSA sophomore Dylan Berger, president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said the College Republicans supported the candidates because of their specific policy positions.
“We supported both (Richner and Newman) because they supported fiscal responsibility and free speech on campus, not because of their party affiliation,” Berger wrote in an email interview. “Going forward, we are committed to working with all Regents, regardless of political affiliation, to advance freedom of speech on campus.”
Where the regents do differ, the differences tend to be more pronounced in what policy issues they focus on rather than their place on the partisan spectrum. Nonetheless, Weiser expressed firm confidence in the capability of the board to work effectively in the future.
“I don’t see anything that’s going to change based on the things that we’re working on, which are really about what’s best for our customers, which are the students, and for our faculty, staff, and for the University’s future,” Weiser said. “We have a responsibility of general oversight — especially financial oversight — and I think that doesn’t change.”